I don’t deal with mechanical things much, day-to-day. However, when I do need or want to “bend a wrench,” I am not particularly intimidated; I am familiar with tools and mechanical things. Why?—my adoptive Dad, Neil. Neil was by chance and by choice a mechanic. Like a lot of kids, he began tinkering with cars and such as a boy and just never stopped. Before I was eight, Daddy worked as an auto mechanic and parts man. When I was eight we moved to an irrigated farm at Pecos, in West Texas. Daddy had to learn about planting and growing crops, but his mechanical skills were an important key to success on the farm. In spite of all the frustrations of farming (finances, the weather, and the markets), Daddy’s life was fulfilled as a “jack-of-all trades” farm craftsman. He had a chance to build his own shop for maintaining our cars, trucks, tractors, and pump engines. He was also a pretty fair welder, blacksmith, carpenter, electrician, surveyor, veterinarian, and watchmaker.
As a born mechanic, Daddy loved and appreciated good tools. He respected their design, quality, and application. In fact, he was a toolmaker himself; if he didn’t have the right tool he made one. He developed and adapted several farm implements that other farmers copied. (I always thought some of them could have been patented.)
Daddy could always justify the cost of a good tool; if he needed it, he needed it. The only problem was he was not very good about taking care of them. He usually left his tools lying where he last used them and could never find them when he wanted them. Mother was proud of Daddy’s talents as a mechanic, but, as the family accountant, she saw money wasted to replace lost tools. It was a problem Daddy didn’t like to acknowledge, and one of the few problems that I knew about between my parents. (I remember this vividly, because Mother often sent me to the shop to pick up Daddy’s tools and put them back where they belonged.)
Even as a toddler, most of my recollections of Daddy have to do with tools. Any time I was with him we were either fixing or making something. I watched and learned, fairly well I think. Daddy always let me try things. When I got in the way he would set me up a place to play and provide me with some tools to bang with.
Daddy collected all sorts of things—hundreds of items were piled around. Small to tiny items were kept in the top drawer of the chiffonier in Mother and Daddy’s bedroom, where Daddy always emptied his pockets at bedtime. Well, to the uninitiated all this might have been junk, but in Daddy’s way of thinking it was a pile of parts just waiting to be installed! More often than not it worked, because Daddy had an uncanny memory of nearly every item...
As I got older Daddy’s ability to build things fascinated me, and I had an ever-growing collection of parts chosen for my own projects. I would use everything in sight, making something to show Daddy. (Like the “perpetual motion machine” that sank in the irrigation ditch, after days of work!) Physically, I was on the hefty side, and when things didn’t fit I substituted brute force for workmanship. The results were often broken parts and tools that had to be explained. I would sometimes hide them from Daddy for a day or two, but the end results were the same—a lecture that included something like, “If you don’t know what you are doing, ask me! ‘Main strength and awkwardness’ are not the way to make something!”
Many of Daddy’s tools have survived and passed to me. Some are a little rusty, but they are all quality tools and this patina of time only reminds me of picking them up out of the dirt. I am amazed at all the little things I learned and still remember about using them—I had a good teacher. You don’t forget the rhythm of a properly thrown ratchet wrench, how to snug up a bolt without stripping the threads, the bite of a correctly sharpened bit, or the feel of a good saw cut. However, while Daddy always knew exactly what size wrench or bolt was needed, I still have to bring three or four sizes to the workbench!
One of my favorite keepsakes is a cheap little ball-peen hammer. It was the first tool Daddy gave me of my very own, when I was about six I think. Daddy often engraved his tools with his initials: “NST”. He carved a single letter “R” on the handle of my hammer. Later, during an infatuation with painting everything in sight, I painted the entire hammer black.
“No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him. There is always work and tools to work withal for those who will, and blessed are the horny hands of toil.” (James Russell Lowell)
Thank goodness our automobiles don’t need the day-to-day attention they once did, and electrical and electronic devices have replaced a lot of perfectly good mechanical contrivances. My education and profession (electrical engineering) have given me the knowledge and skills to deal with these, much as Daddy grafted his life onto the mechanical side of things.
I built my first electronic device, a crystal radio set, with Daddy’s shop tools. Since we didn’t yet have electricity on the farm, I heated Daddy’s huge copper soldering iron on the kitchen stove to solder my first electrical connection. A few years later I purchased (with my own money earned at 10 cents/hour) my first electronic tool... a little volt/ohm/milliampers meter (VOM). I had no idea how to use it, but trying to be a jack-of-all-trades like Daddy, I learned.
My serious introduction to the age of electronics was through amateur (“ham”) radio. My "elmer" (ham radio's name for a mentor) was Charlie Lightfoot, W5MVR, a godly young man that I learned to appreciate and who became a life-long friend. Charlie patiently taught me Morse Code (a ham license required you to copy and send at 13 words-per minute), and then administered the code and technical exam for my license. I was licensed with call sign W5OUS the year I graduated from Pecos High School. When I dreamed of having a tower for a beam antenna (something that very few young hams could afford), Daddy designed and built a mechanical marvel that was the envy of every ham that saw it.
Mother and Daddy sacrificed more than I knew to buy me some of the radio equipment that I wanted. For my 16th birthday, I asked for my first short-wave radio—the Hallicrafters S-38. The S-38 was $40 and the lowest priced one I could find, but I knew it was probably still too much money. On the morning of my birthday I woke up to find a big box on my bed, and inside the $60 Hallicrafters S-20R Sky Champion! I could hardly believe it! It had AVC, BFO, ANL, and a vernier dial! Considering the path I eventually chose for my education and profession, it was an insightful choice—how did they know?
There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
--Graham Greene , The Power and the Glory
Yes, I still have my wonderful Sky Champion!
Although Daddy had dabbled with auto radio repair, he let me explore ham radio on my own. Years later, after his retirement and while I was away in the USAF, Daddy learned enough electronics to pass the federal amateur radio exam and was licensed W5YNZ. I was absolutely amazed! Of course, the station Daddy built was a mechanical monster, so heavy he had to reinforce the side porch of the house where his “ham shack” was located! I was stationed in Germany at the time and held call sign DL4LJ. Daddy and I got to talk by short wave several times between Germany and Texas.
With this new interest, Daddy collected a whole new set of tools. His favorite was a Simpson Model 260 VOM—the best you could buy. Daddy’s ham gear has been passed along to another generation of hams, but I still have both our VOM meters. They set incongruently in my bookcase, beside my little ball-peen hammer…
My current fascination in the field of electronics is with the computer. It has replaced ham radio as an abiding fascination and avocation. And how is the computer classified in today’s high-tech world? Why, all the pundits describe it as the ultimateTOOL! I am sure Daddy would have been another “computer nut," like his son.
There is an interesting follow-on to this story... After Daddy died, Mother insisted I go through his tools and take home the ones I wanted. However, Daddy’s ham gear was too big and heavy. With the help of the hams in Pecos we arranged for it to be passed along to some deserving young ham that could not afford a “rig”.
Twenty years later, in Dallas, I met a young man at my computer club and was very impressed with some programming he had done. In a second visit with him I discovered that he was also a ham (Jon, K5VA). I recounted my early days as a ham and happened to mention that I once lived in Pecos. He quickly countered that he had gone to high school in Pecos! He then asked, “Did you happen to know Neil, W5YNZ?” Can you guess? Although he never met “Neil”, the hams in Pecos had given him part of Daddy’s old ham rig to get on the air for the first time!
I only hope that my tools, and my life, are as full-filled and as helpful to others as were Daddy’s...
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Ray M. Thompson
© July 2003 by Ray M. Thompson